PUBLIC ART IS DEAD, LONG LIVE REAL LIFE
Piers in the North West and far North of Scotland are imposing things, I know because I used to sail there with my parents and grandparents as a child. As we approached land I would tuck my head down into my foam lifejacket and chew on the toggle of my yellow oilskins, the pier, a wall of dark slate gradually growing larger, our target ever more concrete and worrying. I remember that even on rough days being at sea was OK, there was a predictability in the pitch and roll of the water as there was in the unyielding steadiness of dry land. The trouble was in the meeting of the two; the grating of the boats sides on barnacles, the fear of trapped fingers or a sudden swipe of the boom, the swell pushing us against the popping seaweed, old tires used as rudimentary buffers squealing under the pressure. I hated the dark inconstant gap between the boat and the pier to be leaped across with rope in hand, slippery steps meeting unsteady sea-legs, nausea sloshing in the base of the stomach like water in the hold.
The first time I met Ross Sinclair it was in Glasgow, he showed me an image of the Pier Arts Centre in Orkney. Though it looked harmless enough photographed on a sunny day across a still bay, there was a familiar weathered stubbornness to the stone building and its pier, jutting out into the Harbour at Stromness. This was the archetypal, unforgiving Scottish pier, point of innumerable difficult arrivals and embarkments over the years, and for years to come. At the time Sinclair was preparing for an exhibition in Orkney and showed me other images too, transparencies of recent projects held up against the dim lights of the cafe interior.
There was a series of slides of a wooden viewing platform he had built as one half of a work for an exhibition in Aberdeenshire. Raised up on stilts with a pitched roof to keep off the rain, it looked like the old hides I had seen by the side of quiet country lanes, and in the corners of forests, vantage points for the naturalist to watch wildlife, or for the hunter to sit quietly with a gun. Placed in the garden outside the small gallery the hide served a functional purpose, raising the visitor above the garden’s privet hedge and giving them a view over the undulating Aberdeen landscape towards the sea. The roof kept off the worst of the weather, a bottle of whisky warmed against the cold and binoculars and a note pad helped to pass the time constructively. Inside the gallery Sinclair had built a strange parallel assemblage. Around six feet high it resembled a sort of totem pole or shrine, roughly banged together from fence posts ringed with blue and white paint. A cassette recorder played a tape of Sinclair singing Scottish songs, the sound reversed to form an eerie, unintelligible mantra. Sinclair degraded the quality of the sound further by re-recording the songs from previous video work and the final quality was so poor as to threaten a total break down into fuzz and static. The work’s mysterious title I Messiah Am Jailer apparently came as an afterthought inspired by that urban myth that found many of us as children playing Led Zeppelin LPs backwards in the hope of corrupting our souls with encoded satanic messages.
There were also slides of a larger structure built for a city square in Oslo. A bright yellow wooden hut bearing the word ‘BANK’ was raised on stilts above the snow-covered ground. Steps lead up to its two doors, and over the lintels Sinclair’s familiar hand-stenciled letters spelt out the words ‘deposits’ and ‘withdrawals’. Sinclair had named it The International Bank Of Real Life Spiritual Gold. The primary colourfulness of the structure seemed almost to burn a hole in the papery winter sky and drab financial buildings in the background. Through the door something glowed red.
As an introduction to Sinclair’s work these slides and the conversation about them pointed to his interest in the contrasting nature of the outside and inside of things. With these structures the audience could find themselves outside the traditional site for art and paradoxically inside the work itself. It was also an introduction to the great dualities in his work, at times harmonious and at times schizophrenic but always honest about the intimacy of opposites: the real and the spectacular, the public and the private, the content and the context, the object and the event. In hindsight, I can add these images and thoughts to recollections of other pieces of Sinclair’s work I have since come in touch with: toppled churches, morose museums, red gallows, fake mountainsides, real mountainsides, epic drum solos, portable headquarters, black flags, neon signs, stage sets, anarchist libraries and cardboard parliaments. At that time however, it was the pier that stuck in my mind the most vividly, Sinclair’s next target, dark and empty. Call it deja vu.
After that initial meeting I began working with Sinclair and I came to realise his working process was far closer to that of a musician than that of an artist. I fell into a sort of ‘unplugged’ session to find Sinclair improvising on a range of influences as likely to include history, MTV, current affairs, counter culture and personal experience as art theory, history and technique. Sinclair has a project, and its not based on a ‘one hit wonder’ philosophy, its a life mission. What interests Sinclair is to establish an inquiry into the indivisible juncture between mediated experiences and real experiences. He is not seeking to criticise one and champion the other, but rather to measure, research and exhibit the relationship between the two.
By way of example, it is hard not to start with the words ‘REAL LIFE’ tattooed in large, bold capitals across Sinclair’s shoulder blades. The tattoo mediates the reception of the artist’s body, an alteration not only affecting the view of others but also his own view of himself. Sinclair began by applying the logo ‘Real Life’ to himself, with all the inevitable Rock and Roll associations this entails. He denies any dramatic or ironic readings, preferring to liken the act of tattooing his back to that of tagging an animal in the wild. It is important to observe that in this simile he becomes both the tagged and the tagger, observing himself operating as an artist in a world obsessed with image and also observing himself being observed by others precisely as that image itself. Text and body used in this way propose how the meaning we give to things stems from an indivisible marriage of content and context. For Sinclair the text appliquéd into his skin provides his own living, breathing, aging ‘content’ with an ever present, portable ‘context’, and at the same time his body provides a ‘site’ for what might be perceived as a work of art. The tattoo is a self-fulfilling prophecy and like so many of the media he employs, it’s ‘grungy’ and ‘low tech’ on the one hand, but armed with an enduring earnest on the other.
Museums and galleries are still used by artists and curators as neutral zones for exploring abstract ideas. Although the relationship of media to reality is certainly abstract, Sinclair prefers to deny working with such presumptions of autonomy. For Sinclair mountainsides, small galleries, financial districts, street markets, museums and deserted islands share a common functional ‘reality’ and our perception of all these environments is mediated to varying degrees by cultural pressures and complex often unwritten histories. Once familiar with his working method is hard to imagine Sinclair confining his practice to either singly art-institutions or public spaces. The Museum provides Sinclair with as great a depth of contextual material as the Scottish countryside, but most important is the juxtaposition of the two; the inside and outside, the known and the unknown.
This is interesting in regard to current policy on public art and the Blairite euphoria around the idea of ‘creative industrys’. The ‘artist’ we are told, has their part to play in the wider context of urban renewal, gentrification, and regeneration. Not to mention the implication that public art can in some way ‘transform’ the lives of the communities who encounter it. Sinclair is one of several artists working today with a very different engagement with public space, replacing the picture of the artist as educator, do-gooder and ambassador for all things creative, to one of the artist as researcher, free agent, and anarchic surveyor. The relationship that the latter picture has to wider audiences is notably less didactic, and more egalitarian. These artists require the assistance of a varied public to understand their own work, and not vice-versa. The public are being asked to assist a project with their attention and cooperation and this process itself is an art process. To these ends ‘Site’ is approached in terms not simply of architecture or geography, but also in terms of history, social function and contemporary reality.
We read a lot about ‘context’, ‘site-specificity’ and ‘public art‘ these days, but when John Latham and Barbara Steveni focused on the ‘context’ for art-making and art-doing in the 1960’s, their founding of the APG proposed a reading of ‘public’ art that looked at the relationship between site and practice in a radically new way. Sinclair’s links to these pioneering ideas through the environmental art department at Glasgow School of Art is clear, The course director David Harding takes the groups now famous maxim ‘the context is half the work’ as a point of departure for his students. However Sinclair has clearly taken these ideas in new directions while agreeing in principal with the groups reasoning that art practice and the site for art practice are inextricably locked together through a mutual need for change. Where the APG provoked a broader debate about the artist’s position within the decision-making mechanisms of modern society and chose to actively ‘place’ artists in industrial and governmental working environments, Sinclair seems to suggest that the old debates are unsolvable within these terms. Instead he places himself and his own practice outside this art / non-art divide embarking on a project that at once escapes and encompasses them both. This project he has chosen to call Real Life.
In Bremen for the exhibition ‘Do All Oceans Have Walls’, Sinclair placed six coloured neon signs in various sites throughout the city, in a hospital, a police station, a church, a fast food joint, an office and a school. In what might at first appear a bald statement of support for their surroundings the signs all read ‘I ª Real Life’. It is tempting to see each sign as an art work, but hard not to notice its ‘ready made’ qualities, repeated as it is throughout the city. The signs are actually doing something else, each object acting as a foil for the work itself. The phrase ‘I ª Real Life’ is a footnote in the margin of the work, as much a shape as a statement it focuses attention on the meaning of the ‘place’. The project links and compares contexts and in each case the ‘content’ of the work is provided by the viewer in a relationship that is social, personal and anecdotal. It would be nice if things remained this simple. But ironically by structuring and realising this concept, the work is unable to escape its ‘artness’. The presence of the sign transforms these places from the ‘real’ to the ‘spectacular’. The fast food joint hits the front page of the local paper and their kebab sales are unexpectedly tripled. The police station are so happy with their sign they want to keep it, why? because it’s ‘special’. Although only marginally different from other signs around it, be they the green neon for the pharmacist, or the flashing orange of the bar on the corner, the involvement of the sign in an art project makes something of its objecthood. However in the simplicity of the project Sinclair is pointing out that like the other signs in the street any sign’s value is in its being ‘somewhere’. Just as it is hard to visualise that in storage work can cease to exist as a work and revert to being a simple neon sign, if we take the APG maxim as read and the ‘context is half the work’, the question that Sinclair’s work poses is ‘which half?’.
I believe it is fair to say that the majority of writing on Public Art is still predominantly concerned with defining and discussing new relationships between works, sites and audiences. However Sinclair is at pains not to remove his own position as artist from this equation. He measures history inclusive of the present, understanding that by making work for a ‘site’ artists implicate themselves in that place’s history. In the same way that the ‘Real Life’ project forces a reinterpretation of the term ‘Public Art’ it also argues with current readings of the term ‘site-specific’. Both terms have fallen victim to the institutionalised hyperbole surrounding art at the moment. In our current press-release culture, the term ‘site-specific’ has become a ubiquitous appendage to the term ‘installation’ and carries with it some imaginary implication of worthiness and conceptual weight. Curators appear haunted by the criticisms that are leveled at irrelevant and poorly judged public sculpture and the term ‘site specific’ is employed liberally and often falsely, as a vaccine against this. A new sensitivity to ‘site’ appears misguided if used merely to expand the arena for autonomous art statements. It seems clear that there is bad site-specific work as well as good site-specific work and that the term along with ‘Public Art’ itself, are reaching the end of their useful life-span.
The overall aesthetic that Sinclair proposes in his works is at odds to the permanence and monumentality of so much of the work we find in public spaces and at pains to draw attention to rudimentary processes of construction with open-handed statements of structural fallibility. Sinclair’s structures and events in public spaces are finite, non-permanent and at times migratory and the audience is asked to recognise them as such, as much time-specific as they are site-specific. Returning to snow-covered Oslo, his International Bank was in crude contrast to its hulking neighbors the national Bank of Norway and the National Museum of Contemporary Art. In a symbolic act of disassociation stilts raised the structure above the ground, while underneath the square stretch the vaults of Norway’s gold reserves and presumably the art-filled cellars of the Museum. In the presence of these buildings loaded down with the weight and material value of their buried treasure Sinclair’s bank took to the air. The valuable substance it was offering and promising to store was signified by the neon sign reading ‘Spiritual Gold’, that flooded the interior with red light. Seats and a table meant set the scene for transactions of the public’s choice playing the same role as the Whisky, notebook and binoculars in the work I Messiah Am Jailer, these props offer an invitation to stay a while. Sinclair seems happy with the self determining life-span of some work and where the end of an exhibition refuses to interrupt the works continuing existence, other forces will do. The hide in Aberdeenshire was used for some months after the exhibition ended until eventually and for Sinclair satisfactorily, it was blown over in a storm.
In the project which Sinclair and I developed together it was the momentary and arbitrary nature of a works existence that he sought to pursue further. In conversation I began to understand that for Sinclair art exists primarily as event rather than object, he tries to make new work for each site he addresses and finds it difficult to divide the exhibition from the moment of making. His best work appears unfinished, precisely because it is still going on. In tune with this, through a year of discussion we moved from talking about building a structure to staging a one day event.
On Ridley Rd. Market In Dalston, Northeast London, regular traders man stalls selling everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to musical greetings cards, boiler chickens and sari fabrics. A halal butcher plays pumping techno music over a sea of meat and high street brand names are mercilessly scrambled providing suspiciously cheap shirts from ‘French Correction’ or trainers by ‘Robeek’. Together we had chosen the market as the site for the launch of Sinclair’s own brand of ‘I ª Real Life’ products and amongst the heat and human traffic of a sunny Saturday morning Sinclair set about specially customising a standard market stall. When complete the stall had a large red neon sign, hand painted banners and brightly painted cardboard boxes on which to display the product range: Coffee mugs, T-shirts, key rings, ball pens, badges and caps, all emblazoned with the logo ‘I ª Real Life’. By the time the first shoppers arrived Sinclair had all but disappeared into the hubbub and colour of the market, marked apart only by the tireless and surreal repetition of his message and the strange dysfunctional nature of his product. At one with the commercial and social purpose of the place Sinclair manned the stall for the day selling to those that would buy and talking to those that would talk.
Integral to the market project was the idea of portability and the hope that the products could be presented as a stall at markets anywhere and Sinclair rebuilt and manned the stall some weeks later in Inverness. Like the ‘I ª Real Life’ neons in Bremen the product range itself was a device for describing a possible relationship between art and life. It was important that if anything the stall was remarkable only for being unremarkable. It was clear from the start that the market was a tough world to survive in and the stall was soon marked out by other traders as ineffective, overpriced, suicidal. More than anything it was the repetition of the logo that caused people to stop and ask what the stall was ‘really’ selling, the suggestions were varied: a pop group, a new fashion label, a religion. Some passed with a nod and a knowledgeable smile, "ha, ha I geddit, I love real life too".
Sinclair’s work has often involved repetition, migration and reconfiguration and these aspects of his work relate to his quasi-scientific approach to the world around him. Just as he wishes to observe himself, ‘in the wild’ he tries to apply universal yardsticks to different contexts, testing prescribed strategies against multiple audiences. His ‘Studio Real Life’ project reconfigured itself in several different spaces, morphing to assimilate local characteristics. During a stay in Nijmegan, Holland in 1995, Sinclair went busking, but defied common sense by repeating each song he was singing for an hour. The supposed aim of the project was to rate the popularity of certain songs against others, based on payment per hour from passers-by. However, a byproduct of this statistical endeavor was the abuse and hassle that the public began to give Sinclair as that same song came round yet again. Sinclair was of course singing protest songs to those who were protesting and treating art as if it were a job like any other.
I have covered just a few of the ways that Sinclair’s project problematises the relationship between artistic production, exhibition, and reception. They put forward the suggestion that art ‘work’ is a process aimed at eliciting ‘interpretation’, and in this way work always (and only) exists publicly regardless of site. Sinclair appears to have taken a number of sixties experiments to heart and seeing a crack that appeared in the rather shaky foundations of autonomous art he is still endeavoring to drive a truck through it. The result is a project that operates outside the familiar and increasingly hollow polarities of ‘Public’ and ‘Institutional’ space. There is no division in the approach that Sinclair takes to public and institutional spaces, they are all art spaces, all life spaces, all specific and all ‘sites’. By refusing to stigmatise or prioritise one or the other Sinclair kills the need for the term ‘Public Art’ replacing it with the term ‘Real Life’.
But to come back to that Pier. Some months after our first meeting Sinclair traveled North to Orkney and installed the exhibition Dream of a Hamnavoe Free State at the Pier Arts Centre in Stromness. Inside the gallery he constructed the hideaway of an imaginary group dedicated to the liberation of the Orkney Isles from the rest of the Britain. A library of anarchist and survivalist literature added a hard edge to an installation of camp-beds, strangely painted weapons, camouflage netting and wellington boots. Amongst the debris, Kiddy-sized camouflage T-shirts with the promotional message ‘I’ve been to the Hamnavoe Free State‘ implied a worrying cross between militant separatism and a theme park branding venture. on one wall photographs of Sinclair floating face down in the sea, partially obscure the phrase ‘Not as it is but as it could be’, which has been stencilled roughly in bold colours on the wall itself. Outside on the pier Sinclair oversaw the construction of a towering wooden ramp in bright yellow, pointing out towards the sea. Pinned to the front some twenty feet in the air was an orange life ring, looking to all like a sorry afterthought in terms of safety, this ramp having that certain all or nothing quality. A single word was spelt out in red neon high on the gallery’s outer wall adjacent to the structure: ‘Grace’.
Sinclair’s work in Orkney and more recently at the Fruitmarket Gallery came vividly to mind some days ago at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich where I now work. While looking at an exhibition on maritime photography I came upon a series of old monochrome prints loaned by the Canadian Pacific archives. Amongst the photographs are some taken on the docks at Stornaway in the late 1920’s. There is a stiff formality to the photographs, taken as they were before cameras were commonplace or the art of the snap-shot really mastered. Amongst the photographs is a family portrait of a group of crofters from the Outer Hebrides. Dressed in best Sunday clothes with all their possessions packed into suitcases at their sides, they are gathered on a pier waiting to board the ship that will carry them to Canada, away from all they have ever known to something quite incomprehensibly alien and far away. Their faces tell the story well: the father figure with jaw set beneath frightening moustache looks with steely resolution into the camera, his son smiles an empty smile with one nervous eye on his wife and children, and the women almost without exception look petrified. The photographer with an eye for positive publicity has posed the family with a huge sign that reads:
We’re sailing West, we’re sailing West,
To prairie lands sun-kissed and blest,
The crofter’s trail to happiness.